Early in January, Palakkad native Chandramohan Nallur flew down to India from Poland to attend Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, the Centre’s annual jamboree for overseas Indians.
The celebratory day is observed to mark the valuable contribution made by the overseas Indian community.
Nallur, in his late 30s, was nominated for the prestigious Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award for his participation in Operation Ganga — a mission led by the Indian government to evacuate stranded citizens due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
“When the war broke out on 24 February, 2022, the Indian Embassy put out an advisory with a number to contact at the Poland border (close to Ukraine),” says Nallur, who is the treasurer of the World Malayalee Federation’s European Chapter and the general secretary of the Kerala Association in Poland.
“But one helpline number wasn’t enough to address hundreds of frantic calls. So I, along with Pradeep Nayar, another Polish resident, shared our numbers to assist distressed people at the border,” said Nallur.
Now, Nallur has another feather in his cap: His latest venture — called Malayali Beer.
Malayali Beer is a light lager made of a unique blend of European hops and Indian rice flakes. Named as an ode to the people of Kerala, the hybrid beer celebrates the rich history and vibrant culture of God’s Own Country.
The origin story
Nallur moved to Poland in 2011. He is a marketing and commercialisation veteran, having worked as a marketing director for telecom network Lycamobile in Poland and playing an active role as a restaurateur in Spain and Poland.
He met Sargheve Sukumaran in Poland in 2015 by chance. Since then, they have collaborated on many business initiatives.
Sukumaran is a design graduate from IIT Delhi and has experience in product development.
“Malayali Beer is a purely accidental venture,” explained Nallur, and added: “KS Global, one of my clients who imports rice, got an order of 20 tonnes rice flakes from the African community distributor. An advance payment was made but just four days before the shipment reached the dock, war broke out in Ukraine.”
Due to sudden currency exchange fluctuations, the shipment was at risk of going waste.
“Initially we planned to use it to create a line of pet food, but due to a lack of storage facilities, we had to scrap that idea. We also realised that it was going to take nine months to do lab tests to determine the safe use of rice flakes as an ingredient in pet food,” he said.
When all else failed, Nallur turned to Google for ideas.
“I read about Komban beer, which was produced outside India, and found the inspiration to start my own beer line. Some research later, we pivoted and created Malayali Beer.”
The right inspiration
Komban is a beer made by Kochi-native Vivek Pillai using Palakkad’s matta rice. It is popular in the UK today.
A few months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, Lijo Philip had launched Kalikut 1498. The wheat-based craft beer has a decent number of takers in Poland.
“I contacted Philip and he helped me find the right brewer,” Nallur recalled. He added, “The brewery was fine with the idea, but we had to give a minimum order of 2,000 litres to produce the beer with our recipe.”
Sukumaran, a beer enthusiast, would eventually partner with Nallur in this business. By mid-2022, Nallur approached him to hold discussions with brewers and come up with the right flavour.
“I received a call from Chandu (Chandramohan) about the initial sketch of ‘Malayali’, which he had been contemplating for some time. I was immediately drawn to it. The idea of creating a modern and bold liquor product that stays true to its cultural roots was something that I had been considering for a while,” Sukumaran told South First.
Nallur’s expertise in marketing and sales, clubbed with Sukumaran’s vast experience in product development and design, came in handy to build a new brand and a solid product.
The duo roped in master-brewers to craft the beer with a delicious blend of flavours. “The European hops provide a crisp and refreshing taste, while the Indian rice flakes add a subtle sweetness and smoothness to the finish,” said Sukumaran
He added, “The unique mix of flavours makes it perfect to pair with a wide range of food — from cheese platters, toasted veggies, spicy curries to grilled seafood and meat.”
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A niche segment
The Polish beer market is one of the most developed in Europe.
Bartłomiej Morzycki, general director of the Association of Brewing Industry Employers, said, “Domestic beer production is about 36 million hectolitres, of which nearly 10 percent is exported. On the other hand, about two percent of beer imported from other European Union countries and, to a lesser extent, from other parts of the world is sold to the domestic market. Consumption is about 92 litres of beer per person per year.”
The production of beer is mainly dominated by several large producers — Asahi, Heineken, and Carlsberg (they have over 80 percent share in the beer market in Poland alone).
“What’s left belongs to smaller breweries and local producers. There are about 250 of them, but together they represent only about one percent of the market in terms of volume,” informed Morzycki.
About 10 years ago, craft breweries began to emerge in the market too. Craft beer is different than regular beer and is made with high-quality ingredients.
These changes in the consumption of craft beer and regular beer have impacted the traditional type of beer — lager — which Malayali Beer is.
“Currently, lager accounts for over 70 percent of all beers and every brewery offers this type of beer. The most popular brands in the Polish market include Tyskie, Żywiec, and Okocim.”
But the hybrid beer market in the world is a niche segment. So, how then will newer brands like Malayali Beer survive, we wonder.
“Despite significant saturation, the market is still promising for new producers who are offering new beer styles and flavours,” Morzycki clarified.
“The Polish consumer is more and more aware and demanding, but also open to novelties. There are also many enthusiasts who are looking for new beers and willingly experiment with flavours,” he added.
The path to mainstream
Nallur is confident his brand is on the path to mainstream. “To compete with brands like Tyskie and Żywiec, our product has to be raised dramatically,” he said and added, “This will happen eventually.”
Malayali Beer is a bootstrapped venture. So far, Nallur has spent close to ₹20 lakh in purchasing the rice flakes, testing different combinations, the initial cost of bottling, design, trademark and market testing.
But what has the response to his beer been like?
“People love it!” he noted cheerfully. “Indians, however, are of the opinion that it needs to be stronger. Currently, it contains 4.5 percent alcohol and is too light, by Indian standards. In the coming months, we will come up with a stronger, better version.”
Since its official launch in November 2022, the beer has sold 50,000 bottles.
“Currently, we have leased a 10,000-litre barrel at a brewery and with the ongoing demand, we plan to rent another 10,000-litre barrel. Depending on the initial year of sales and revenue, we will take a call on whether to start our own brewery,” he added.
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The logo is as Malayali as the brand itself! It features a face with a Kathakali headdress, aviator sunglasses, and a handlebar mustache with the hashtag #pwolialle (a slang Malayalis use to say they are awesome).
“We saw many big brands relying heavily on marketing. We wanted our product to speak for itself and to be at par or better than the story behind it,” Nallur said.